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Sew be it: Masks 4 All Ireland volunteers help stop spread of COVID-19

By Cian Molloy - 07 June, 2020

Staff and volunteers at Crosscare, the Dublin archdiocesan social services provider, are among tens of thousands of people who have been provided with face masks by the crowd sourcing group Masks 4 All Ireland, to help keep them and their clients safe.

Founded by Mary Murphy and Kelly Black in the first week of the pandemic shutdown following the St Patrick’s Day weekend, in the space of just over 70 days, they and their growing group of Masks 4 All Ireland volunteers have produced more than 52,000 re-usable face masks.

Originally, Mary and Kelly worked to produce masks for hospital staff and those working in residential care homes, but their client list now includes people working with charities like Crosscare, who deal with clients in a wide variety of locations.

Mary, who trained as an aeronautical engineer, makes bespoke lingerie and Kelly is a bridal-wear designer. Given her background in engineering and in 3D printing, she took an early interest in how many people across the world were producing home-made ventilators for use in intensive care units because not enough hospital equipment was available.

As the crisis developed, she then realised that there was a shortage of basic personal protection equipment (PPE). People were starting to make home-made face masks for use by frontline staff, but she also understood that many peoples’ efforts were being wasted because of simple mistakes.

“People were making face masks and then dumping bags of them at hospital entrances and in many cases these could not be used because they didn’t fit properly, or because the wrong materials were used or because infection control officers didn’t know their provenance,” she said. “I saw that I could design masks that would fit properly and that could be boil-washed, so that they could be used again and again.”

Aersospace engineer, lingerie maker and mask designer Mary Murphy.

Mary says that good design uses the least amount of parts and her design uses three pieces of cotton fabric, some ties and features a pocket that can accommodate pieces of disposable non-woven breathable material, such as pieces of paper coffee filters or pieces of paper tissue.

“These masks are not surgical grade, but they are good enough to be used by nursing staff on non-COVID-19 wards or by staff in nursing homes, who had real difficulties finding masks. The woven cotton layers provide up to a 50% reduction spreading the virus and the non-woven material provides 33% protection – that is a total reduction of 83%, which is pretty good.”

When Mary and Kelly posted the design on a new Masks 4 All Ireland Facebook page, for the first few days it attracted little interest until a charity helping children with cancer posted a link to their design. Suddenly, word began to spread and soon there were hundreds of ‘one person factories’ producing masks for healthcare workers.

To help source material, Dublin woman Katie Holland set up Fabric Hub to source and distribute cotton to volunteer sewers and Katie also got the scout troop in Kilternan to help distribute masks to nursing homes across the capital. The project is also being funded by donations from the general public via a GoFundMe webpage, which you can visit here.

Usually, the masks are held to the face using elastic, but non-elastic ties may be used. “The masks are designed so that if an elastic breaks you can thread a lace through them to tie them to your face – you could even use the leg of a pair of tights to make ties,” says Mary. “The design is so robust that someone joked that you could still keep using the mask in the event of a zombie apocalypse. And because the masks are so reusable, they have replaced the equivalent of over one million disposable face masks.”

Activity within the group has decreased as many of the professional sewers who were members are returning to their normal place of work as the lockdown is gradually relaxed – at their peak, the group was making 10,000 masks a week. Now they are making between three and four thousand each week.

There are video tutorials and downloadable patterns on the Masks 4 All Ireland website and on the group’s Facebook page.

As the group gained experience, some began to organise their work to accommodate batch manufacturing; for example, one member, Stephen Hill, specialised in making ties and he estimates he has produced 8kms of ties, enough for 4,400 masks.

“Not everyone who joined made masks for healthcare workers and that is fine,” says Mary. “Some people joined to make masks for themselves and for their family and their friends. But the advice now from the World Health Organisation is that we should all be wearing masks.

“Some people have bought sewing machines and have used this as an opportunity to learn how to sew, which is great, and there is a great sense of community on the Facebook page. It’s like the sewing circles that used to exist years ago and which used to bring together women from all walks of life.”

If you would like a mask for yourself and members of your family, you can buy one from a sister Facebook page, the Mask Makery and all profits made from this social enterprise will go towards meeting Masks 4 All Ireland’s costs in making masks for healthcare workers, community organisations and people in need.

In the meantime, Crosscare’s staff and volunteers are delighted to have received masks from the organisation. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: “A massive thanks to Masks 4 All Ireland for supplying free washable masks for our front line Crosscare staff. They are great designs and great quality!”

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